Interview: Shem Phillips, founder of Garphill Games

This week Diagonal Move is joined by Shem Phillips, the founder of Garphill Games and designer of Raiders of the North Sea.

DM: Thank you for joining us today, Shem. Can you tell us how your career as a game designer began and what prompted the decision to found Garphill Games rather than seek an established publisher?

SP: It started out by me simply wanting to make my own game. I had no knowledge of the modern board game market, or any prior experience in game design/publishing. So I set out to create my own simple, roll-and-move family game. It was after producing this game that a friend introduced me to Catan. From there I rushed out to my local toy store and picked up Carcassonne and Family Business. Later I was invited to a local board game convention, and I’ve been discovering more and more great games ever since.

DM: Garphill Games was founded in 2009. It was some years later that your games began to receive notable public attention.  How were those first few years as an independent publishing company?

The first 6 years were purely run as a hobby. I wasn’t aiming to make money, or even turn it into a business. I was just designing games and printing small print runs for friends and a few loyal supporters. It was very boutique back them.

Raiders of the North Sea
Raiders of the North Sea (photo: Shem Phillips)

DM: You are most well-known for your two historical trilogies, the first of which ‘The North Sea Saga’, began with Shipwrights of the North Sea. How did this game develop and what was the initial reception like?

SP: Shipwrights started with me wanting to make a game about building ships. I already had some mechanisms in mind, including using only 3 resources to construct the ships. Through some research, this led me to discover that Viking longships were predominantly made of wool, oak and iron. After delving more into the theme, I knew that Vikings were the right fit for the game. The initial reception was far beyond what I had ever expected. This was my first Kickstarter campaign. I had an extremely low funding target, and only planned to print 500 units (hoping to sell at least 200 of those). A lot the buzz was generated from the artwork. This was the first time anyone had seen The Mico’s art in a board game, and it seemed that the large majority of people that saw the campaign loved the art.

DM: The trilogy continued with Raiders and Explorers which are both playable as standalone games. What prompted the decision to turn the games into a trilogy and how did you strike the balance between the new and the familiar from a design point of view?

That came from a lot of Kickstarter comments. People liked the idea of building ships, but felt like they wanted to use them for something one the game had ended. This sparked the idea of creating a second game, this time focusing on raiding. In my mind, doing a trilogy just made sense, which is why I committed to designing Explorers before Raiders even went to Kickstarter.

Shipwrights of the North Sea (pre-production photo courtesy of Shem Phillips)

DM: The West Kingdom games (co-designed with S J McDonald) follow a similar pattern – a trilogy of standalone games – and incorporate multiple layers of mechanisms in each game. What is your approach to this layering of mechanisms?

SP: We always start with the general setting. Perhaps a title, or at least some sort of story that we want to base the game around. Then we do a lot of brainstorming on how the game could look visually on the table, and also how it might work mechanically. Sam and I both love games that have interconnected mechanisms, which is probably why you see that a lot in our own games. I’m not sure we ever set out to mix mechanisms. It’s more likely that it just comes out of the development process.

DM: The trilogies are both themed around turbulent historical periods.  Is this something that you are interested in and did you try to reflect the historical period within the game mechanics? If so, can you describe how you approached this?

SP: I’m a big fan of Age of Empires II on PC. In fact, so is Sam Macdonald. I grew up always wanting the more medieval Lego sets over the Sci-fi or trains as well. I guess there’s just something about the swords and shields period that interests me. While our games are set in history, we still like to give them a little twist of fantasy and fiction. So don’t expect too much historical accuracy. Hah. I love the setting, but I’m not so particular on every little detail.

Viscounts Garphill Games
Viscounts of the West Kingdom (photo: Jon Burgess)

DM: Like many more complex games, ‘North Sea’ and ‘West Kingdom’ lean heavily on iconography to aid players during play.  What challenges do you face when developing this aspect of a game? How tricky is it to get the balance right and what are the implications for the success of a game if this aspect doesn’t work?

SP: There are plenty of times where Sam might think up a new card ability, and my answer is simply “how would I show that with icons?” So they can be quite restrictive. You really need to approach each game separately. Sometimes using text is actually better for the gameplay. Icons are often better when there are a lot of cards on the table, and players need to quickly decipher them, without trying to read text upside down on the opposite side of the board.

DM: With numerous award nominations and three games currently in the BGG top 100, you’ve clearly achieved a certain level of both critical and popular success. How does that feel and was there a point where you first realised that you had ‘made it’?

SP: It’s still hard to believe. And it’s an absolute privilege and blessing to have received so much recognition for our designs. I suppose the first time it really hit me was receiving the Kennerspiel nomination for Raiders of the North Sea. That was a huge shock, and honour.

Paladins of the West Kingdom (Photo: Jon Burgess)

DM: Now that you have achieved that certain level of success, has your design and publishing career become easier or have the challenges also grown?

SP: I definitely trust my gut a lot more than in the past. The more you design, and get positive feedback from players, the more the imposter syndrome begins to fade away. It took a long time though. I’m a lot busier now than I’ve ever been. It’s still just as fun, but there is a lot more responsibility and expectation to keep delivering quality games. I’m not complaining though – I’m up for the challenge!

West Kingdom cards Garphill Games
Some of the card in the West Kingdom Trilogy (Photo: Jon Burgess)

DM: What’s next for yourself and Garphill Games?

SP: 2021 will see the release of 3 expansions for the West Kingdom trilogy. We also have the second part of our Circadians universe coming to Kickstarter later in the year, along with an expansion for the first title. We’re also well into the designing process for the South Trilogy, which should debut in 2022.